Crosscutting Concepts : Your Questions Answered

February 28, 2021 No Comments

Are you a science teacher with questions about the Crosscutting Concepts? Check out this blog post to get your questions answered.

Questions About the Crosscutting Concepts

What are the Crosscutting Concepts?

The Crosscutting Concepts are one of the three dimensions in the Next Generation Science Standards.  The CCCs connect to all of the Science and Engineering Disciplines. 

For example, the Crosscutting Concept of Structure and Function (or any other CCC) is important in life science, Earth and space science and physical science. Also, it is an important concept to consider when designing systems. Therefore, it also has implication in engineering.

The CCCs and the Other Dimensions

The Crosscutting Concepts help students deepen their understanding of the other two dimensions of the NGSS by guiding students in making these connections. There are countless connections to the Science and Engineering Practices as well as the Disciplinary Core Ideas.

These connects are apparent when you review the NSTA Matrix for the CCCs. Find these at the bottom of this post.

The CCCs and Common Vocabulary

In addition, the Crosscutting Concepts help students to build common vocabulary between science and engineering disciplines. The subcomponents of the CCCs include key terms that can be applied across disciplines and provide further help for building understanding.

For example, the CCC of Systems and System models is easy to apply over and over again. Students define the System that they are studying, list components and describe interactions between the components. This concept builds understanding of the term “system” in various contexts.

What are the CCC's?

The CCC are the Crosscutting Concepts. This is a common way to abbreviate the term Crosscutting Concept. This abbreviation is use throughout this blog post in place of the term “Crosscutting Concept”.

How many Crosscutting Concepts are there?

There are seven Crosscutting Concepts.  All seven concepts are found in each grade level band. The grade bands are Kindergarten through second grade, third through fifth grade, middle school (6-8) and High School (9-12).  The Crosscutting Concepts are:

  1. Patterns
  2. Cause and Effect
  3. Scale, Proportion, and Quantity
  4. Systems and System Models
  5. Energy and Matter
  6. Structure and Function
  7. Stability and Change

Each concept includes a few subcomponents.  The subcomponents explain the connections that students should be making at each grade level band. These subcomponents get more sophisticated in each grade level band. 

To see the subcomponents and the grade level progression, check out the NSTA matrix (linked below.) The NSTA Matrix details each Crosscutting Concept by grade level band.

Laptop with image of the Matrix of Crosscutting Concept in NGSS.  This is linked at the bottom of the blog post.
The NSTA Matrix for the Crosscutting Concepts is a great tool to help you understand the subcomponents at each grade level band. This resource is linked at the bottom of this post.

What do I do with the Crosscutting Concepts?

Really, it's not a matter of what you do with the Crosscutting Concepts.  Rather, it's about what your students do with the concepts.  Students will use the Crosscutting Concepts to make connections between major disciplines in science and engineering.

However, before your students use these concepts, they must be explicitly taught.  Without explicit instruction, your students are not likely to make connections to the concepts.

Once students receive explicit instruction about the CCCs, they can be used to explore content and to explain what they have learned. To learn more, check out how they might be used in a 5E lesson sequence below.

When should a new Crosscutting Concept be taught?

It is best to teach the Crosscutting Concepts in context rather than all at once. Teach them right before you ask students to use them in your classroom.  Then, ask students to apply the concept to a Disciplinary Core Idea or use them with a Science and Engineering Practice.

Unfortunately, many teachers teach all of the practices at the beginning of the school year. When they aren't taught in context, the meaning is less clear to students. Ultimately, this ends up wasting valuable class time.

To find out what other common mistakes teachers make when teaching the Crosscutting Concepts, check out this blog post.

Which phase in the 5E model should the Crosscutting Concepts be used in?

First, determine your goal in using the CCC. Students use them to make sense of content or to explain content.

For example, if you want students to use the CCCs to make sense of content, use the Crosscutting Concepts as part of the explore phase.  For example, students can look for patterns during a card sort activity.

Also, the Crosscutting Concepts works well in the first part of the explain phase.  In this part of the explain phase, students explain what they discovered in the explore phase.  This occurs before the teacher provides additional information.  (If you are unfamiliar with the 5E model, check out this episode of the Teaching Science in 3D podcast.)

In this case, the students use the Crosscutting Concepts to explain what they observed in the explore phase. Students apply what they have learned to a concept of your choice. This is a great formative assessment.

Really, it's okay to use the Crosscutting Concepts any time you see a connection. These connections will become more apparent the longer that you use the CCCs.

How do I introduce the Crosscutting Concepts?

I like to start by assessing the student's prior knowledge.   For example, students may have some familiarity with concepts like Patterns.  However, they might not identify patterns that are more complex as patterns.  After I see what students already know, I provide explicit instruction.

It's also important to look at previous grade level bands. If your student have not had NGSS style instruction before, you will likely need to start with a prior grade level band. Then, gradually, you can introduce on-grade-level information.

Explicit Instruction About the Concept

It's important to provide explicit instruction about the concepts. This way, students get clear information about what the concept means and how it may be applied.

Make a plan for the instruction that you will provide. First, I review the subcomponents of the NSTA Matrix for the Crosscutting Concepts.  Then I determine which pieces are most applicable to our current content and provide direct instruction about the concept.

To make your life easier, I have developed printable reference sheets that students can keep in their interactive notebooks. These reference sheet contain the information that students will need in order to apply the concept to content in their grade level band.

Structure and Function Pic 2.JPG

The first time that students see a Crosscutting Concept, I give students these notes.  Students keep these in their interactive notebook so that they can serve as a reference sheet later in the school year when the concepts come up again.

You can find my resources for the Crosscutting Concepts at all grade levels here in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

How can I help students make connections to the Crosscutting Concepts?

There are several ways to help students make connections to the CCCs. Here are a few.

Graphic Organizers

My favorite strategy is to use graphic organizers.  Each time that students encounter a Crosscutting Concept, they can use the graphic organizer to make connections to the Disciplinary Core Idea or the Science and Engineering Practice.  Using the same organizer helps students to make connections and recognize patterns within a Crosscutting Concept.

Structure and Function Pic 1

These graphic organizers come with the reference sheets that I mentioned earlier in this post. Here are the graphic organizers for upper elementary and middle school.

Exit Tickets

Often, I devote the last 5 minutes of class to an exit ticket. Exit tickets are great way to assess student understanding of a given CCC. Also, they reinforce connections to the Crosscutting Concepts informally.

I developed these exit ticket templates to help you assess the CCCs in your classroom. Click here to grab them for your middle school classroom.

Devote Space in Your Classroom

Finally, devote an area in your classroom to the Crosscutting Concepts.  Refer back to this area each time that you make a connection to the Crosscutting Concepts.

NGSS pro Juli Cannon does a great job of this in her classroom. To learn more about this strategy, check out her blog post.

Laptop showing Google Slides Presentation of Digital Crosscutting Concept Anchor Chart

If you don't have space in your classroom for an anchor chart, add one to your digital classroom. Here is an example of a digital anchor chart that helps make connections to the Crosscutting Concepts explicit.

First, post this in your digital classroom. In this resource, there is a slide for each of the Crosscutting Concepts. Then, each time you make a connection to the Crosscutting Concepts, add a note to the slide for that Crosscutting Concept.

Read more about this strategy in this blog post.

Get more of your questions about the Crosscutting Concepts answered.

Thank you for taking the time to read this information about the Crosscutting Concepts. The resources below are a great way for you to get additional information about the Crosscutting Concepts.

Do you have more questions about the Crosscutting Concepts? Post them in the comments below.

Original Publish Date December 7, 2019 – Updated December 27, 2020


Erin Sadler

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